Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Following (4) "...a yacht sailed into the story..."

A few years ago, Gerry Clark put a flyer on the Akaroa Yacht Club notice board seeking a crew member to sail with him to the Bounty Islands for his annual bird count. Don answered and went along. 
After a week’s sail they stood off Bounty Island (in the direction of New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands) and Don and another crew member went ashore. A gale was building and Clark said he would move the yacht farther out, clear of the low islet bereft of anchorages, but return before dark to collect them. He did not return, it was blowing too hard, they lost sight of him, and Don and his mate slept ashore between boulders with a flapping tarp over them in cold conditions. In the morning Clark was sighted, not far off shore, and all was well.
A later trip, Don told me, followed the same pattern as the one Don went on, but did not end well. Clark put two men ashore from Tortorore for the bird count and once again the yacht moved off into open water farther from land, out of sight. Clark had someone with him on the yacht this time, a third crew member who, like Don, had answered the thumb-tacked appeal. 
Once again a gale blew. Towards evening, when it came time for the men ashore to be picked up, there was no sign of the boat. The two on shore spent the night more or less as Don had, then crossed the island looking for Tortorore on the other side. Eventually, among the rocks, they found wreckage of the yacht. Clark was never found along with his scratch crew member.
“It could have been you,” I said, when Don told me about it. There was a feeling that Clark had something like the possibility of this coming at him for years, hardly welcome at any age but he was in his seventies, doing what he loved in a place he loved, a low set, wind swept, bird-breeding haven in the wild south. No better memorial could stand for him than those rocky islets barely above the tide. But while “doing what he loved” may equally have applied to his much younger crew member, Roger Sale, it seemed bitterly sad that the two fates, older and younger, fulfilled and promising, were yoked together.
On the subject of solo sailing versus taking crew along, Clark once wrote: “I am more frightened in storms when I am by myself – I cannot quite understand the psychology of that, unless it is just because there is nobody to give me a hand in an emergency.”
In another age, I thought, Clark might serve as a Jack London-admired model, self-interested if not quite as self-impressed as the skipper of the Sea-Wolf, a dangerous man on the sea.
The sorts of storm Clark meant would rank as emergencies in anyone’s language. In 1986, having seen his crew home by other means after Tortorore was dismasted, he was soloing back from the Antarctic on a ten week stint that has entered small boat history. Near Heard and McDonald Islands the jury-rigged Tortorore rolled five times in seas only a degree above freezing, leading Clark to decide that his chances of survival were negligible: as he was already numb with cold he would have the benefit of dying quickly. But he came through, eventually, arriving off Fremantle on a balmy, breezy afternoon, where the New Zealand America’s Cup contenders were training (he took a photo of them streaming past). The half-wrecked Tortorore limping along without fanfare under a home-made spritsail was like some lurking ghost-ship from the wrong side of the universe and was appropriately ignored by, if she was not outright invisible to, her countrymen racers.
Allowing Clark a better fate, and a more considered personality, the yacht Worker's Comp sailed into Book Three of The Following.

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